Michael Gough has reached across cyberspace to read his daughter Saige bedtime stories and teach her the ABCs. He’s even watched her open Christmas presents from 1,000 miles away.

In the real world of divorce, Gough is a pioneer of what’s called “virtual visitation” — electronic communication that is the next best thing to actually being there for non-custodial parents.

“It’s meant to supplement, not replace, face-to-face visits,” says Gough, who turned to technology when his ex-wife decided to move to Wisconsin from Utah with their then four-year-old daughter in the wake of the couple’s 2002 divorce.

In 2004, Utah became the first state to make virtual visitation part of divorce legislation. Similar laws have since been passed in Wisconsin, Florida and Texas.

It’s still a relatively unknown concept in Canada, although Gough hopes to work with fathers’ rights groups to get similar access legislation here.

“It makes children feel that we’re there, even though we can’t be,” says Gough, a computer security specialist.

“It can reduce the child’s stress caused by the move away from a parent they love. I’ve found that it really takes away that separation anxiety and that out-of-sight, out-of-mind aspect of divorce.”

Virtual visitation remains controversial, says Chicago-based family law lawyer and fathers’ rights advocate Jeffery Leving. The concerns, he says, include fears it will be used in court to justify a move away by custodial parents, to reduce face-to-face access time for the non-custodial parents and even be used as an excuse to cut child support payments, which are based at least in part on the amount of time each parent spends with a child.

In fact, many custodial parents have objected to virtual visitation because it’s seen as eating into their time with the children.

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